|Former Korean singer Lee Ji-yeon, now living in the United States, wears a mask to protest discrimination against Asians following the coronavirus epidemic outbreak. The disease originated in Wuhan, China, but is spreading throughout the world, causing acts of racism against Asians in western countries. Now Europe is under siege and the U.S. has slammed its doors on Europeans for fear of contagion. Dr. Hakim Djaballah, a virology expert, tells The Korea Times that up to 20 percent of the global population may be infected in a worst case scenario. From Lee's Instagram account|
By Oh Young-jin
Dr. Hakim Djaballah, former head of Pasteur Institute Korea, has shared his expertise with readers of The Korea Times since the global coronavirus epidemic began.
In his latest interview, the New York-based scientist advises Korea to check whether recovered patients might still carry enough viral load to spread it to others. "A systematic follow-up and virus testing is critical to make sure they will not reach a viral load to cause symptoms again and be able to infect others," he said.
Djaballah said that even though Korean health authorities had been exhausted by their viral fight, it was important that they consider sending their scientists to disaster-stricken zones and share data, testing and analysis protocols, among others.
"South Korea can help with sharing the expertise to perform these tests at a much higher throughput than any other country, especially for the less fortunate countries," he said.
About the European situation, the moving epicenter of the disease, he blamed its leaders' incompetence and geography.
"My guess is two-fold, the first being the arrogance of some European leaders toward the Chinese outbreak and their thought that it will never reach their shores," he said. "The second would be the reassurances from Chinese authorities and of course, the World Health Organization."
About Japan's travel ban on Korea, he said, "There is no scientific justification for this travel ban other than Japan trying to play geopolitics."
Regarding the ultimate number of infected, he said, "If it turns out that China is not telling the truth about the number of confirmed cases, maybe it would be feasible for the infections of the global population to reach up to 20 percent, but no more."
|Medical staff in full-protection gear take a sample for coronavirus testing at a hospital where confirmed cases occurred among patients and staff near Seoul. Korea Times|
The following are the questions and answers of a written interview with Dr. Djaballah. ― ED.
QUESTION: Do we have to live with the constant fear of contracting this disease, COVID-19?
ANSWER: Even if Korea has it 90 percent contained as it looks set to be in a matter of weeks, the remaining 10 percent can easily spark and launch new clusters as Seoul has been experiencing with cases at a call center.
Korea had about 8,000 infected cases out of a population of 52 million people in 50 days or so; that is a rate of 0.01 percent viral spread.
From the reported data by the Korea Centers for Disease Control (KCDC) on people who recovered, it is still not clear as to the definition for recovery and also if the KCDC is performing viral load tests to see if these individuals remain infected with a much lower virus load.
If the test has reached its detection limit for this virus load, then we have to be very cautious and aware of these recovered patients. A systematic follow-up and virus testing is critical to make sure that they will not reach a viral load to cause symptoms again that can infect others.
Q: Italy exploding and Europe under siege: what was wrong with EU's approach? Did it have to put Italy under lockdown promptly? What is the cause of the Iranian proliferation?
A: My guess is two-fold, the first being the arrogance of some European leaders toward the Chinese outbreak and their thoughts that it would never reach their shores. And the second would be the reassurances from Chinese authorities and of course, the World Health Organization. Similar mistakes were made all over the world, not only within the EU.
It is difficult to close the terrestrial borders within the Schengen area of the EU with 26 countries. The Italian prime minister could have barred arrivals from China and other infected regions; but at the same infected people can enter Italy from neighboring countries. Still these measures would perhaps reduce the number of infected, but not contain it.
I believe Italy and Iran are both dealing with an evolved and highly contagious version of the same coronavirus. Traditions and social etiquettes are driving the rapid spread and infections, not just within their own borders but to other neighboring countries, too. I predict France and Spain may follow the same trends as Italy in coming weeks.
Iran is much more fragile because it has been under severe economic embargo for many years and I can't attest to its healthcare infrastructure. As for Italy, it is very clear that it is unprepared and its healthcare infrastructure may actually collapse soon, requiring the military to take over containment efforts.
Q: Japan placed a virtual travel ban on Koreans together with Chinese because of their high number of cases? Is it scientifically based?
A: This is called the tail wagging the dog. Japan made a mistake when it allowed the Diamond Princess Cruise ship to dock on its shores knowing that it contained the coronavirus. Japan knew full well the consequences of its actions. There is no scientific justification for this travel ban other than Japan is trying to play geopolitics.
Q: Maybe it is too early to say this, but if Korea successfully contained this epidemic, what do you see Korea can do for the rest of the world afflicted by this disease?
South Korea can help with sharing its expertise to perform these tests at a much higher throughput than any other country, especially the less fortunate countries. Korea can also send trained personnel, but these health workers deserve a much-needed break and rest.
They can also share protocols and data analysis software to help other countries get set up fast and control the spread of the virus.
Q: What would be the ultimate numbers of infections? Some say about 60 percent of the global population will eventually contract this disease with a fatality rate in the 1 percent range. Do you agree?
A: It is very hard to say, but I do not believe 60 percent of the world population will be infected. If we truly believe the overall data from China, then it is impossible to infect so many people.
If it turns out that China is not telling the truth about the number of confirmed cases, maybe it would be feasible to reach up to 20 percent, but no more. China has reported more than 80,000 cases in a population of 1.4 billion ― that is a rate of 0.005 percent viral spread.
Let's assume that China actually has 11 million confirmed cases, then the rate becomes 0.8 percent viral spread; and for a world population of 7.8 billion, the virus could infect up to 62 million people worldwide.
Fatality rates are difficult to predict because the crisis is ongoing and the most vulnerable people are those who become statistics. It is too early to speak about these rates, or even to compare them to seasonal influenza deaths.